Alastair Iles

Research Expertise and Interest

chemicals policy and politics, sustainable food systems, environmental STS, sustainability transitions, sustainability learning and societal change

Research Description

At the Division of Society & Environment, I research across the broad field of environmental policy and societal change, drawing on STS, environmental justice, and social learning scholarship. My interdisciplinary work falls into three major domains: greening chemicals; sustainable food systems; and sustainability transitions.

1. Greening chemicals. I work on a range of issues associated with making the global chemical industry more sustainable and just. One current project looks at the role of socially robust knowledge in the ongoing transformation of the US chemical industry. Are chemical firms changing toward sustainability, and what is the role of societies in holding them accountable for their actions? What can we learn from the history of pollution prevention for the fate of the green chemistry movement? Another current project investigates the development of chemical testing regimes in the US and European Union, which is closely associated with chemical regulatory systems. Here, I study the politics of making endocrine disruptor screening programs and biomonitoring surveys as part of a larger, collaborative project.

Earlier, I did some work on biofuels but I concluded that the first generation of biofuels (ethanol from corn and sugarcane) was unlikely to make a sustainable contribution. These days, I am working on biobased chemicals – the fast-emerging sector of chemicals produced from agricultural biomass. My interests are in the social and environmental impacts of this transition; the emerging political economy of the flex-crop system; and the business and scientific knowledge involved. White biotechnology and synthetic biology are increasingly entwined with biobased chemicals and agriculture, as seen in the new CRISPR technology for gene editing.

In this work, I have served as an Associate Director of the Berkeley Green Chemistry Center. Among other activities, I have taught new interdisciplinary courses in green chemistry and the public ethics/politics of sustainable materials.

2. Sustainable food systems. Early, I researched sustainable food consumption issues, particularly in the seafood and food retailer areas. I examined, for example, how seafood consumer campaigns emerged; and how production and consumption systems are being linked through consumer campaigns, retailer actions, regulation, and innovative learning tools. In the past few years, I have moved further upstream into the world of agricultural production. Here, I am researching the development and implementation of policies to support diversified, agroecological farming systems, or systems that are founded on ecological farming methods and smallholder producer knowledge. I have become increasingly intrigued by the potential of food sovereignty to transform industrial food systems. It has been a steep learning curve for me but I enjoy very much the wide array of food and agriculture issues, from peasant farmers and food workers to gene editing and inter-cropping; and from developing country to developed country contexts.

STS also plays an important role in my analytical thinking. I am the lead author of a chapter on agriculture and food in the 4th edition of the STS Handbook. This chapter reviews the epistemic and material politics shaping industrial agriculture, and explores diverging pathways for more sustainable agriculture – organic and agroecological farming vs. sustainable intensification, artificial meat, and flex-crops. Recently, I took a STS approach to unpacking the politics of making agroecology legitimate as science, practice, and movement in North America.

As part of this body of work, I became one of the founding co-faculty directors of the Berkeley Food Institute. Please check out our website to see what we are doing!

3. Sustainability transitions. I am beginning new work on urgent transitions: the challenge of quickly moving beyond the carbon-industrial complex and market fundamentalism to a sustainable, just, diverse planet. For now, I am concentrating on food systems as my primary site of research. I am interested in the politics and dynamics of structural and cognitive change. I am also particularly intrigued by the right to regenerate or renew as a fundamental human and ecological right underlying societal change.

Within this domain, I am also picking up on one of my long-standing interests: the place of sustainability learning in bringing about transformations in ecological and social systems. How can we imagine new societal forms while reviving older but ecologically and socially sustainable forms? What are the information visualization methods and institutional platforms for community dialogue that can help create wider agreement on the necessity for transition away from what Richard Norgaard calls the ‘econocene’? (That is, the market-dominated world we live in now).

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